Heart of a Tiger: John Hiller did it all on the mound in Detroit

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

While you worry about whether Justin Verlander will bounce back, a Canadian lefty's own comeback with the Tigers was nothing short of amazing.

The champagne sprayed. The manager was being tossed into the team's whirlpool, which was filled with ice water. The baseball clubhouse was infiltrated by interlopers like senators and city councilmen.

In one corner, a pitcher was having some fun. He shoved a fan inside his uniform and as his opened jersey fluttered wildly, he whooped it up.

John Hiller was making fun of his heart, which attacked him less than two years prior.

The scene was the celebration after the Tigers clinched the American League East Division in 1972. And Hiller, the left-hander from Canada (born in Toronto), couldn't be blamed for partying harder than anyone.

These days, while the rest of Tigertown tries in vain to figure out what is wrong with Justin Verlander, I, too, got to thinking about what it's going to take for JV to bounce back from this dreadful slump he's in.

Then my thoughts drifted to Hiller, who made the ultimate bounce back with the Tigers.

Hiller, maybe the most versatile pitcher in Tigers history, didn't just bounce back from some bad outings he brought himself back from the brink of death.

Hiller did it all for the Tigers, yet he almost didn't get a chance to extend his career beyond age 28. Heck, he was lucky to extend his life beyond age 28.

Hiller, who pitched for the Tigers from 1965 to 1980, took the ball under any circumstances. If the manager needed a starter in a pinch, Hiller started. If there was long relief to be done, Hiller did that as well. And, most famously, if a slim lead needed protection in the late innings, Hiller was there.

From 1965 to 1970, Hiller made 155 appearances, and 31 of those were starts exactly 20 percent. So for every five times on the mound, Hiller made a start. How many pitchers today have that type of split personality?

Hiller, in his early days with the Tigers, was a little on the portly side. There was some baby fat, but it didn't affect his pitching. In his first six seasons, Hiller's ERA was just over 3.00 and his WHIP was about 1.20.

In a start he made on Aug. 6, 1968, (the author's fifth birthday), Hiller set a franchise record by striking out the first six Cleveland Indians hitters that came to the plate.

Plus, he was the arm-of-all-trades.

Then came Jan. 11, 1971.

Hiller was three months shy of his 28th birthday when something didn't feel right in his chest. He was having a heart attack.

He recovered, but his baseball career looked to be shot. What professional athlete returns after suffering a heart attack, for crying out loud?

Hiller missed the 1971 season, of course, but he came back to spring training in 1972, much thinner, and with an eagerness to pitch again.

Maybe if the Tigers had any manager other than Billy Martin at the time, Hiller would have been told, politely, to take a hike you know, for his own good.

But Martin, who always saw himself as an underdog, loved that quality in others, and so the Tigers skipper gave Hiller a chance at forging a spot on the staff.

But even Martin didn't put Hiller on the roster that broke camp in 1972. Hiller was offered a coaching job and the Tigers also asked him to throw batting practice before home games.

That wasn't good enough for the 29-year-old Canuck.

Hiller told the Tigers to take their coaching job and stuff it. He was going to pitch again.

Martin relented, and Hiller rejoined the Tigers as an active player on July 8, 1972, in Chicago. It didn't go particularly well (two runs and four hits in three innings of work), but the results were secondary. John Hiller, heart attack survivor, was back in the big leagues!

Boy, was he ever.

In his next 41 innings in 1972, Hiller allowed just eight earned runs. He finished the year with an ERA of 2.03 and a 1.18 WHIP saving three games along the way as well.

The Tigers snatched the AL East on the next-to-last game of the season and Hiller's comeback story got even more amazing in the playoffs, when the Tigers faced Oakland in the 1972 ALCS.

The southpaw made three appearances in the series, spanning 3.1 innings, and nary an Athletic scored. Hiller even got credit for the victory in Game 4.

But the best, believe it or not, was yet to come.

Being a closer in MLB isn't exactly recommended work for a man with a history of heart trouble, but Martin tabbed Hiller for that role in 1973.

They called guys like Hiller "firemen" in those days, and they didn't just pitch the ninth inning. It wasn't unusual for a fireman to enter the game as early as the sixth inning and take it home. Hiller, to show you, pitched 125 innings in 1973, saving games for the Tigers.

Hiller was credited with 38 saves in 1973, and while some of those 38 wouldn't be saves under today's rules, it didn't matter; Hiller proved that 1972 was no fluke.

From 1974 to 1980, when he retired mid-season, Hiller saved 71 games and again pitched whenever he was called upon, no matter the situation. He was hardly a LOOGY; usually when Hiller entered the game, he stuck around for a while.

As an example of Hiller's staying power in games, he had an incredible 31 decisions in 1974 (1714) without making a single start. But he pitched 150 innings, which is an unheard of figure for relief pitchers nowadays. He had 13 saves and made the All-Star team.

In 1976, Hiller made one start among his 56 appearances. It was a complete game shutout. The next season, Hiller made eight starts and completed three of them.

Hiller retired abruptly in late-May of 1980. Tigers manager Sparky Anderson pleaded with Hiller to reconsider, but to no avail. The lefty was 37 and ready to put his versatile arm out to pasture.

During John Hiller's 15 years in Detroit, no Tigers pitcher could perform so many roles, and Hiller did them all at the same time.

From Charlie Dressen to Mayo Smith to Billy Martin to Ralph Houk to Sparky Anderson, every Tigers manager enjoyed looking at Hiller and seeing three pitchers spot starter, long reliever, and closer all wearing No. 18.

One man may have survived the heart attack, but three pitchers did, too.

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